SEA BEACH LINE, 18th Avenue

photo: Greater Astoria Historical Society

Today, subways are identified by pretty much everyone in NYC by their letter or number. This is a convention that has been in place going back to the 1920s, when Interborough Rapid transit and Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit lines were given identifying numbers. As those lines were run by different competing companies, they saw no problem in some numbers were duplicated. In the 1930s, the Independent Subway lines were identified by letters, and when the Christie Street connection in Chinatown allowed IND and BMT trains to run on the same tracks, BMT trains switched over to letters–helpfully, different letters than the ones already used by the IND.

Not only were individual subway lines identified by name, but there were names for individual routes. In southern Brooklyn, rapid transit lines were originally steam railroad lines that were built to take passengers to seaside resorts in Coney Island and Manhattan Beach, and were named for the West End Hotel, Brighton Hotel and Sea Beach Palace Hotel; only the Culver was named for its founder, Andrew Culver.

Over time, the IRT, BMT and IND division names fell out of favor as did the West End, Brighton, Culver and Sea Beach. Until the 1970s, however, just about every Brooklynite knew what lines were meant by these names. Every 20 years, just for fun, apparently, the Metropolitan Transit Authority changes the routes, so the letter designations are in flux. Perhaps, we should return to these older designations. For the moment, the N train, and occasionally the W, runs on the Sea Beach Line.

The New York and Sea Beach Railroad ran from a ferry landing in Bay Ridge to the Sea Beach Palace Hotel in Coney Island beginning in 1876, the country’s centennial. At first, it was a steam railroad running through open country, through an occasional small settlement or town. Brooklyn became slowly urbanified in the late 19th Century and a street grid appeared, with the railroad then running in a right of way between 63rd and 64th Streets as far as 21st Avenue, when it turned south and ran between West 7th and 8th Streets.

The NY& SB RR was sold to Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit in 1898, which electrified the line, installing a third rail. That is the scene you see above in the photo taken about 1905 at the 18th Avenue stop. People are waiting for an approaching northbound coach. North of here, the Sea Beach had a connection to the 5th Avenue El, which crossed into Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge.

Big changes came in 1914-1915. A new BRT tunnel connecting to the Manhattan Bridge was constructed. We know it today as the 4th Avenue Line carrying R trains. The BRT included express tracks on the line, and the Sea Beach was connected to the 4th Avenue Line tunnel, with Sea Beach trains running to Chambers Street, then 14th Street, 42nd Street and by 1987, Astoria. Meanwhile, the Sea Beach Line was placed in the lengthiest open cut in the NYC subways, with an express track to Coney Island that wound up being used only sparingly, from Chambers Street to Coney Island in the 1910s and in 1967-68, from the Broadway Line to Coney (the Chambers Street connection to the Manhattan Bridge was eventually severed in favor of a connection to the 6th Avenue lines). Crossing Avenues were bridged over the open cut, with station houses built at stops along the line. The Sea Beach paralleled the Long Island RR Bay Ridge Branch between 4th and New Utrecht Avenue, but the Bay Ridge LIRR had abandoned passenger service by 1924.

[I’m a little off on this info. See Andy Sparberg’s comment below. –ed]


The Street View photo from 2016 was taken in the same spot about 110 years after the first. The building besides the tracks remains in place, with a Caffé Bene coffee shop occupying the front instead of the tavern in the 1905 photo. The stationhouse and entrance are across the street. 

I’ve simplified the Sea Beach Line story somewhat. Read the whole thing here. 

Check out the ForgottenBook, take a look at the gift shop, and as always, “comment…as you see fit.”



Categorized in: One Shots Subways & Trains Tagged with:

7 Responses to SEA BEACH LINE, 18th Avenue

  1. Andy says:

    Great photo, and thanks for sharing. The pre-subway history of the southern Brooklyn rail transit routes is fascinating. Two corrections are needed.

    The NY& SB RR was sold to Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT) in 1898, which electrified the line, installing overhead trolley wire on grade-level portions, such as shown in the photo. Continuing to Manhattan, Sea Beach trains switched to the West End Line (today’s New Utrecht Avenue elevated) at Bath Junction, an at-grade interlocking where today’s 62nd St./New Utrecht station on the D and N trains is located. North from Bath Junction both routes continued at grade, under trolley wire along New Utrecht Avenue to 39th Street, where they accessed the Fifth Avenue Elevated and switched to third rail power for the remainder of the trip to Manhattan’s Park Row Terminal, including a Brooklyn Bridge crossing. Park Row Terminal was closed and razed in 1944, by then only serving Myrtle and Lexington Avenue El trains.

    The old elevated trains never used the Sea Beach line open cut between New Utrecht Avenue and 59th St./Fourth Avenue. Bath Junction was severed in 1913, to facilitate construction of the new open cut route. Also note that the BRT was reorganized out of existence and became the BMT in 1923, partly due to the 1918 Malbone Street accident at Prospect Park.

  2. Lady Feliz says:

    Kevin, were IRT trains numbers as early as the 1920s? I always thought that was a post-WW2 convention? I’ve never seen IRT cars with the numbering system until the late 1940s, and IRT maps/destination signs didn’t show numbered lines until the early 1970s. Just curious, since I’ve seen BMT/IND numbers/letters going back to the 1920s and ’30s, but not the IRT.

    • Andy says:

      First IRT cars with numbers displayed, on the headsigns only, were the R12s put into service on the #7 Flushing Line in 1947. The first official system map that displayed IRT route numbers was in November 1967, published when the Chrystie Street Connection opened, when the BMT and IND divisions officially adapted a unified, coherent lettering system for their routes. Up to then the BMT and IND were a mishmash of letters and even numbers. For example, mid-1960s train roller signs identified the Sea Beach as the N route, but the Broadway/Brooklyn-Jamaica route was the #15 train. When Chrystie Street opened, the BMT and IND officially became the B Division, while the IRT assumed the A division moniker. Hard to believe it is exactly 50 years since those changes occurred.

      As I recall, the station route signs along the platform ceilings began to display the circled letters and numbers using color codes beginning in November 1967, but it took a few years for the entire system to be completed. Since then, the letter and number colors changed to reflect today’s convention which uses the same color for multiple routes on the same trunk line.

  3. Bill Tweeddale says:

    Back in the 50’s, my father would drive us up to a candy store at the Sea Beach 18th Ave station on Saturday night to get the Sunday papers. I don’t remember them looking anything like your photo, but heck, it was 60 years ago!

  4. Anonymous says:

    My Dad said that his family moved from lower Manhattan and settled in Bensonhurst Brooklyn after the Sea Beach line was connected over the Manhattan bridge and the open cut to Coney Island was completed. He also said in the summertime, open air trains used the express track to Coney.

  5. Tal Barzilai says:

    The interesting part for most of the BMT lines is that many of them were already around before the subway, and the only thing the TA did was just integrate them into the system, though some renovations were required for some of them in order to part of that said system.

    • Andy says:

      This statement is correct if one looks at a map, but the reality is that the integration of the old Coney Island routes into the subway system was a very large undertaking that involved much more than renovations. Major new routes had to be constructed, while existing routes were completely upgraded for subway service and removed from street-level running.

      All four routes that reach Coney Island (Brighton, Culver, Sea Beach, and West End) originally operated at grade level, railroad style, with low platforms at steam locomotives. When overhead wire electrification was installed, around 1900, the tracks remained at grade level, crossing intersecting streets. In 1907, The Brighton Line (today’s B and Q) was rebuilt in a combination of open cuts and embankments, between Prospect Park and Sheepshead Bay. From 1913 until 1920, the current network took shape. The Culver (today’s F) and West End (today’s D) routes were raised from grade level to steel elevated structures. The Sea Beach (today’s N) was relocated into an open cut between 59th St./4th Ave. and 86th St. Major new subway routes under 4th and Flatbush Avenues were built to connect the entire Southern Brooklyn rail network with Downtown Brooklyn and the Manhattan Bridge, which in turn provided access to a new four track subway under Broadway in Manhattan. All work was part of the Dual System of Rapid Transit that vastly expanded New York’s subways between 1913 and 1931 and created much of the current network. At the time, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) was responsible for the work, which was financed by the City of New York.

      It’s important to note that the BMT name was not used until 1923, when the BRT underwent a major corporate reorganization. The TA was not a player in these early days either, because it did not come into being until 1953.

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